Potassium Balances Salt Intake

By Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

July 3, 2013

Potassium Balances Salt Intake
Potassium is highly concentrated in your cells, whereas sodium (salt) is concentrated between your cells. New science shows that a lack of potassium is a primary reason why salt can cause high blood pressure. This is especially important in the summer when higher heat can aggravate a potassium deficiency.

Potassium is the most important positive ion (cation) within your cells. Your cells have an ion pump that pumps two potassium ions into a cell, while pumping three sodium ions out. In this way, cells maintain a proper electrical charge, which is essential for proper fluid and electrolyte balance in your body. The normal concentration of potassium within cells is especially important to your nervous system and is needed for normal nerve transmission.

Potassium is high in foods such as bananas, oranges, cantaloupes, tomatoes, potatoes, legumes, and garlic. Other good sources include most fruits and vegetables, as well as meat and dairy. A problem for many Americans is excessive intake of salt in comparison to potassium intake, thereby creating a relative potassium deficiency. Additionally, dietary surveys of Americans age 60-80 show their diets to be lacking in potassium1.

Lack of potassium manifests as nerve, muscle, and fluid issues. Irritability is common and occurs in combination with impaired muscle function. In milder cases, this is simply muscle weakness. In more significant deficiencies, coordination is reduced and muscle cramps may occur, along with more noticeable muscle fatigue.

Ironically, the diuretics often given by doctors to lower blood pressure by removing excess water and salt also have the undesired side effect of stripping away potassium.

Sodium intake in and of itself is not a problem as long as you are healthy. Indeed, healthy kidneys can readily handle huge fluctuations in salt intake. However, once a person starts gaining excess weight, the kidneys enter into a state of stress and have difficulties processing the large amount of sodium naturally passing through them every day.

Like magnesium and calcium, potassium is a mineral that helps buffer stress and maintain proper pH in the body. When any of these important minerals are lacking, your pH can become too acidic and your body will slip into an unhealthy zone. Since potassium problems are more noticeable in heat or during intense exercise, ensuring potassium adequacy in the summer months is a good idea for everyone. This is why many people gravitate toward extra fresh fruit in the summer. You also need salt, but not in excess. And in many cases, especially if you struggle with symptoms of potassium deficiency, supplemental potassium can be a real help.

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